The Symbolic Narcotic: How Dystopias Hide From Themselves

Tyler Wells Lynch


Good science-fiction doesn’t predict the future; it tweaks a feature of the present and extrapolates to an obsessive degree. Ursula K. Le Guin likened extrapolative works of science fiction to the methods of a scientist feeding large doses of a food additive to lab mice “in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities.”

The end result, as Le Guin pointed out in the introduction to the 2000 edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, is almost always cancer. “Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.”

In literary terms, the end result is almost always dystopian. But that’s just one way of writing science fiction. Le Guin described her own work as a series of thought experiments: a moon is colonized by anarcho-syndicalists; a single consciousness is embodied in the vegetation of an entire planet; an androgynous offshoot of humanity comes to terms with the concept of fixed gender. These are thought experiments inhabiting the dimensions of narrative. The same cannot be said, however, of a show like Black Mirror, which is almost exclusively the domain of technological extrapolation.

While the most recent season of the show suggests its prime has passed, Black Mirror is, at its best, a satirical heightening of consumerism. It places viewers in the cage with the lab rat. You can only watch as the subject, usually a protagonist, is force-fed meal after meal of technological carcinogens. The experience for the viewer is so often depressing because it presents, in perfect feasibility, a totalitarian future. But unlike 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, Black Mirror’s despotic regime is entirely of the mind, driven by the additive of gadgetry. Its efficacy is revealed by characters so immersed within the propaganda of Silicon Valley innovation that they lack the imagination to even conceive of an alternative.

Characters who exist outside of the technological compact, which exchanges privacy and personal identity for prestige and convenience, become de facto exiles. They are denied common experience or personal relationships, however distorted those concepts may be by the central conceit. In what usually marks the denouement of an episode, the protagonist is estranged, alienated, or separated from the consumer society. Sometimes the separation is redemptive, but most of the time it’s punitive.

Ye Olde Cynicism

The idea of technology-derived alienation is nothing new, but it takes on new impact in the neoliberal era. You can trace a renewed cultural interest in alienation back to the 1990s—the era Francis Fukuyama famously called the “end of history:” the universalization of liberal democracy as the ultimate form of human government.

The charge of capitalism as the only viable economic system, to which, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, “there is no alternative,” is inherently fatalistic—a terminus of political imagination that fulfills itself in cultural explorations of neoliberal disorders: loneliness, isolation, addiction, competition, consumerism, selfishness. These atrophic, contradictory expressions of unfulfilled imagination tacitly endorse the understanding that this is it. There is no future because the future has already been written. As Noam Chomsky wrote in Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order:

“Instead of citizens, [neoliberal democracy] produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless.”

The compact of neoliberalism causes tremendous stress. But at least it makes for good art. The late 1990s were replete with this brand of narrative fatalism. With the Cold War officially over and the summit of sociopolitical consciousness funneled through the lens of consumerism, is it any wonder that the most lasting films of the age were about loneliness and angst? (Magnolia, Office Space, American Beauty, The Matrix, and Fight Club, to name a few.) As the welfare state was eroded and labor beaten back, wealth inequality took flight, and the culture concerned itself with the byproducts of precarity, like alienation, addiction, crime, diminishing windows of opportunity, apathy masquerading as wisdom, and the vague impression that this isn’t it, because this doesn’t even seem real. Embracing the unreal, narratives of the time made sure to dress themselves in layers of irony, sarcasm, indifference, and overwrought plot devices that all served to conceal an empty core.

Cynicism of the truest Gen X variety blossomed in the absence of socioeconomic possibility. It’s tempting to date the “awakening” from this era to a certain cloudless day in September, but a better culprit defies the historical moment. The grip of terminal cynicism that defined the 1990s was loosened not by the September 11 attacks and the dive into endless war, but by the Internet. It was the inward pull of social media, digital surveillance, and consumer technology that opened up imaginative possibilities even as it cemented the socioeconomic order.

In his essay previously published in this magazine, “Simulacra & Self-Simulation,” Steven Monacelli explains how our digital addictions perpetuate the mass collection of data, which in turn convert behavior into mere mathematical probabilities. As such, our identities are ceded to commodification and reborn as transactional symbols:

“We now stare into ever-present black mirrors that are haunted by all-knowing, manipulative, master-level psychologists of the mind. They wear our faces as masks and hold the power to record, predict, and ultimately circumvent our intentions and actions.”

We have transitioned from Fukuyama’s angsty, foreboding “end of history” to what Jean Baudrillard referred to as “the omnipotence of manipulation”—a symbol-laden pretense of reality, wrought with models of identity, the quantification of relationships, and the zombification of power. Here, where the collection of data fuels Baudrillard’s “scenario of power,” reality progresses not with the passage of time, but with the accumulation of symbols and the distillation of matter into data. The alienating effect—the mechanism of Le Guin’s dystopian vision—is the invisibility of its very self. Isolation, addiction, cynicism, and all the other byproducts of precarity of course still exist. But now they are diluted through a compounding and uneven set of realities, the authenticity of which becomes more and more debatable the further removed they are from the subjective lens. Thus, symbols of power—more than mere advertisements—are the only real source of power. They are the additive in Le Guin’s dystopian metaphor.

Junk Wins by Default

Within a universe of symbols, Black Mirror focuses on consumer technology as the driving force of modern alienation. Invariably, it reveals the relentless push for innovation—through constant disruption, kaizen, solutionism, a Certified Fresh review—as an addiction, albeit one naturalized through advertising and consensus. For the same reason a drug wins domain over consciousness, so does consumerism and all its digital instruments. In the words of William S. Burroughs, “You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction. Junk wins by default.”

Consumer technology is no different. If you have doubts about that, imagine what it would take to rid the public of devices that, just two decades ago, most people had trouble even conceiving. The dopamine rush of likes, a photo album of your life, a communications portal to everyone you know—all of this exists on a consumer gadget that’s always within reach and important enough to us to stir panic attacks if lost. That power calls into question who we even are without our curated digital models to remind us. Am I who I say I am, or am I whatever the symbols on my phone say I am?

Now, let’s extrapolate.

Consider the Black Mirror episode “White Christmas.” We are presented with a dystopia in which consciousness can be uncoupled from identity. Our most hardwired sense of “self” can be copied into a digital facsimile. Force-feeding this carcinogenic “additive” to an imagined future, the episode envisions a society where minds are routinely extracted, duplicated, and enslaved. The facsimiles may be interrogated for criminal investigations, or they may be seated in an Echo-like smart gadget to serve as a virtual assistant, existing only to make toast and turn on lights. There are other allusions to facsimiles being used as “cannon fodder for some war thing.” (The irony here being the idea of sentient NPCs.) A similar technology allows characters to be targeted for alienation, or, in the parlance of social media, “blocked.” Faces and voices are redacted from the senses, rendering loved ones anonymous.

How different is this from the world we know, rife as it is with curated online identities, sophisticated state surveillance programs, and social media-induced isolation? The dystopia of “White Christmas” is, as Le Guin put it, a work of extrapolation, a steroidal iteration of our decoupled, tech-addicted present. Here, there can be no self when the self is a commodity, and there can be no clemency—no justice—when identities are not permitted to exist.

In the CPU realm of the duplicated consciousness—a device called a “cookie”—time can pass as quickly or as slowly as the operator chooses. Police detectives use the cookie to interrogate the protagonist, Joe, whose duplicated self is under the impression that he has been cooped up in a snowy shack for years with another character, Matt (Jon Hamm). Eventually his guilt is revealed and Joe discovers he is only a copy of his true self. In a cruel perversion of the afterlife, Joe is sentenced to a chronic hell. A police officer sets Joe’s cookie to experience time at a rate of 1,000 years per minute, then leaves the office for the Christmas holiday. The lab rat to our viewer experiment, Joe is left to endure millions of years of solitary confinement as the song “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” plays on eternal repeat.

More cynical than the soundtrack of the afterlife arriving in the form of an irritating Christmas jingle, the person who hands down this judgment is not God but some functionary of the judicial bureaucracy—a functionary leaning on his cruelest, most primitive instinct for justice. We are likewise invited to recognize Matt’s cruelty as he refuses to heed the suffering of a digital consciousness extracted to perform the duties of an advanced Siri. Instead, he chooses to enjoy his toast while the facsimile suffers months of solitary confinement without even the reprieve of sleep.

These punishments are so grotesque in scale that they constitute a thought experiment within a larger extrapolative design. To contemplate a million years of solitary confinement truly taxes the imagination. Even though we know it is a thought experiment, our imaginations still lunge for an exit, a logical way out of having to think about such cosmic horror. That’s the power of eternity (or, more precisely, eons). What’s worse, however, is that we recognize the impulse in these characters to subject other human beings to such torment. It is more difficult to imagine the technology itself than it is to imagine a human being’s willingness to harness it for evil’s sake. As Chomsky wrote, technology itself is not evil: “It is almost always up to us to determine whether the technology is good or bad.” And the arbiter of virtue in the realm of technology almost always redounds to the impression of power: who holds it, and who do we think holds it?

The Cost of Doing Business

Dystopias allow evil to exist in much the usual way: through banal detachment. As Hannah Arendt argued, the history of any atrocity involves the suppression of individual morals in service of some common evil. Adolf Eichmann’s defense was that he was just following orders. As such, a softer evil would allow injustices to occur at the hands of a public that feels it is either too detached or powerless to stop itself. Such a culture would lack the imagination to picture its defeat, let alone actually defeat it. As the evils ratchet up in intensity, so does the normalization. Dystopias do not arrive overnight—nor do they ever, in a sense, “arrive”—because no one knows they are living in a dystopia, even when they are living in a dystopia.

This is true for all of Black Mirror’s episodic dystopias: characters embrace the onward march of consumer technology as inevitable. While Silicon Valley may embrace disruption as a prospect for innovation, the imperative is top-down: the ability to feed the addiction depends on the purchasing power of consumers, and sustaining that power requires stability. Put another way, only the producers are allowed to “disrupt.” This contradiction lives comfortably within the heart of the neoliberal order, where corporate cliches like “Move fast and break things” exist alongside Thatcheristic mantras like “There is no alternative.” But there’s an ugly logic to this contradiction. It’s the logic of an addict—logical not because of any coherent rationality, but because of an overriding urgency. The “need”—whatever it may be—trumps all else. This is the logic of symbols rather than numbers.

One side-effect of addiction is the inability to imagine alternatives. The addict conflates his own identity with that of his need, unable to extract his former self any more than he can inhabit the shoes of a stranger, because his former self is also a stranger. What gets lost in the relentless search for another hit—be it human dignity, compassion, purpose, or moral consistency—is the unfortunate byproduct of the addiction. It’s just “the cost of doing business.” A capitalist society addicted to the fruits of its own innovation must, then, lack the means to imagine alternatives to its own consumption. Mark Fisher elaborated on this in Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?:

“In the last ten to fifteen years… the internet and mobile telecommunications technology have altered the texture of everyday experience beyond all recognition. Yet, perhaps because of all this, there’s an increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present. Or it could be that, in one very important sense, there is no present to grasp and articulate anymore.”

That was published in 2009, long before the revelations of Edward Snowden and the Orwellian term “Big Data” stripped the veneer from Silicon Valley’s utopian pretenses. Even during the Bush administration, you could ask the question: are we not veering dangerously close to a dystopia? The better question might be: would you even recognize one if we were? A younger, healthier society might recoil at the image of our current tech-obsessed culture, even as we so readily scoff and recoil at a supposedly speculative show like Black Mirror. The more we hurdle towards a dystopia, the less we are equipped to recognize one.

That is the mirror in Black Mirror: it presents a visage of our society as it currently is. The distortion or resemblance of that visage can be debated, but that it can be debated is the whole point. The not knowing what’s dystopian vs. what’s merely the complacency of a tech-addicted culture seeds the kind of horrifying, existential fears known to any great work of fiction: “Here be dragons.” Here, hallucinations abound as creepy crawly things. Here, we are invited to venture inward into the mind, to indulge fears that are entirely new to the human experience: true infinity, self-replication, loss of identity, cognitive enslavement. These fears stem from attempts to dress up ancient defects like loneliness and apathy, which seem less severe in light of their supposed social media “fixes.” And they sprout from a simple addiction—that of capitalism’s need for innovation.

From Dystopia to Utopia

In a dystopia, catharsis is rare because there is no motivation for redemption. Human imagination in a tech-addled society can only feed its own addiction, inventing new and disruptive ways of satisfying the same old urges. It cannot imagine any sort of just, egalitarian, or even vaguely utopian alternative. There is only the addiction. There is only the hunger for more. But like any other addiction, recovery is possible.

An exemplary thought experiment, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed imagines an “ambiguous utopia” in the form of a society devoid of profit, hierarchy, and labor coercion. The term “utopia” is qualified by the hardships suffered among the citizens of the moon Anarres, whose environment is dry and barren, not just of resources but of traditional capitalist icons—money, class, and the power borne of their assertion. The people of Anarres are truly without plenty. Nevertheless, they see in the neighboring planet Urras—a land of opulence derived from hierarchy, property, consumer technology, and wage labor—nothing worth liking. To the average Anarresti, Urras is a diseased society.

Through the lens of the Anarresti protagonist, Shevek, the imaginative failings of the profit-addicted society are contained in the metaphor of the wall. Walls separate people, classes, and, most crucially, ideas. Thus, in a world of walls, everyone is a prisoner. As Le Guin narrates in the book’s opening lines: 

“For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall. Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.”

It’s with some irony, then, that Shevek visits Urras to “unbuild the walls.” His outlook is humanitarian, like that of a family member towards an addict without the capacity to recognize his own addiction, even as the disease devastates everything around him. And it is here that we see the open arms of a true alternative, another way of living, extended out to the befuddled slums of a consumptive dystopia. Embodying the spartan tenets of anarcho-syndicalism, Shevek offers a hand that he insists be received from a place of need.

“We have nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners.”

To recover, then, is to spurn the artifice of plenty.

To evolve is to be dispossessed. Le Guin was always careful to describe the world of Anarres as something subordinate to a utopia. (The original 1974 edition was literally titled The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia.) And how refreshing it is to conceive of such an alternative through the lens of a pragmatist, to see it rendered with all the warts of imperfection. In doing so she offers a path out of the endless artifice and pastiche of the industrial imagination. There are no false promises or rafts of cultish manipulation—only naked, undefined possibility. Le Guin put it best in her essay, “A War Without End:”

“The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.” ♦



Tyler Wells Lynch is a writer, editor, and journalist with bylines in The New York Times, USA Today, Vice, and others.